The Wikipedia entry on deafness will give you the definition, signs and symptoms, causes, diagnoses, prevention, treatments and more. These are all from the medical perspective of being deaf, with a small "d", and doesn't show you the full story of a Deaf person, with a capital "D".
What's the difference between deaf and Deaf?
People who are "deaf" usually don't associate with other members of the deaf community, usually don't sign, strive to fit in more with hearing people, and identify their hearing loss in medical terms only.
People who are "Deaf" identify themselves as culturally deaf and have a strong Deaf identity. They usually come from a School for the Deaf, are fluent signers, and are heavily involved with other Deaf people, clubs, and events. These Deaf are proud of their Deaf Culture and believe they are not "broken" or need to be fixed by the medical community.
What is Deaf Culture?
Deaf culture centers around American Sign Language (ASL) and their identity and unity with other people who are Deaf and hard of hearing, hearing signers, and C.O.D.A.s (Child of Deaf Adults). It focuses on what deaf people can do, instead of focusing on the capability to hear or speak. Dr. Barbara Kannapell (a deaf professor at Gallaudet University) explains it this way:
"Deaf culture is a set of learned behaviors and perceptions that shape the values and norms of deaf people based on their shared or common experiences."
What's it like being deaf?
This is hard to explain because each person experiences life differently. Whether their family communicated orally or in ASL; whether they were mainstreamed or went to a Deaf school; whether they can hear some, speak, lipread and many other variables.
There are several commonalities that describes being deaf:
- Being in a hearing family (more than 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents) whether the parents sign or not, deaf people get left out of family gatherings, conversations, and news. They rather avoid these situations, or isolate themselves away from everyone and entertain themselves.
- When a deaf person's trying to be involved in a hearing group's conversation and they've missed something, they're often told "Never mind", "I'll tell you later", or "It wasn't important". This is a major pet peeve among deaf people and it's dismissive and belittling.
- When some people find out that a person's deaf, their expectations of that deaf person drops substantially. Then they're surprised that the deaf person actually has a higher education degree, a job, married or have children. The ability to hear or speak is never correlated to their intelligence or comprehension.
- People, especially in the Medical community, inquire why we don't get "fixed". Whether we have hearing aids or cochlear implants or not, is a personal decision and no one's business. Then if the deaf person does have a hearing aid or C.I., people wonder why it's not a cure and we still struggle with hearing and speech discrimination.
- Deaf people have to tolerate the barrage of questions from ignorant people. Stupid questions like "can you read and write?" or "can you drive?". Just because they're missing a sense doesn't mean they can't function on a daily basis.
- Deaf people face a lot of discrimination. Ignorance, low expectations, assumptions, and apprehensiveness interferes with a deaf person's life frequently. They face barriers to education, employment, health needs, and daily living.
- Deaf people get "pigeon-holed" together. The general public assumes that you meet one deaf person, you've met them all. They get pre-judged based on actions of other deaf people before them. There's been cases of deaf people getting barred from getting a hotel room because some other deaf people before them trashed the place.
The "Bright Side" of Deafness
The previous bullets listed a few of the hardships of Deafness, but there's a multitude of positive realities of being Deaf.
- Having a beautiful and rich language in ASL. ASL is not a "translation" of English, it has its own grammar, syntax and rules. It uses the full range of hands, facial expressions and body language to convey its message.
- Bonding with other Deaf people in a tight-knit community. Being part of a "small world" gives Deaf people a sense of belonging and a barrier-free environment to communicate, express themselves, share information, and thrive.
- Having a strong tradition in Poetry, Storytelling, Art, and Film all done in Sign Language.
- Being more visually keen. Deaf people rely on and interpret the world around them through their eyes. They "notice" more going on around them visually. It's been proven that Deaf people are better drivers because of this.
- Deaf people can "tune out" their surroundings as well. Noise doesn't bother us, if they wear hearing aids or a C.I., they can take them off for some silence
Every Deaf person is unique, but there is one thing we all have in common: we all want to be treated with respect. We have families, friends, communities, and lives that are just as fulfilling as anyone else.
We may be different, but we are not less equal.